by Anchee Min
PEARL OF CHINA
For Pearl S. Buck
I belong to China for I have lived there from childhood to adulthood . . . Happy for me that for instead of the narrow and conventional life of the white man in Asia, I lived with the Chinese people and spoke their tongue before I spoke my own, and their children were my first friends.
Pearl S. Buck
My Several Worlds
Behind the calm steadfast eyes of a Chinese woman, I feel a powerful warmth. We might have been friends, she and I, unless she had decided first that I was her enemy. She would have decided, not I. I was never deceived by Chinese women, not even by the flower-like lovely girls. They are the strongest women in the world. Seeming always to yield, they never yield. Their men are weak beside them. Whence comes this female strength? It is the strength that centuries have given them, the strength of the unwanted.
Pearl S. Buck
Letter from Peking
A Note on the Author
Before I was Willow, I was Weed. My grandmother, NaiNai, insisted that naming me Weed was better. She believed that the gods would have a hard time making my life go lower if I was already at the bottom. Papa disagreed. “Men want to marry flowers, not weeds.” They argued and finally settled for Willow, which was considered “gentle enough to weep and tough enough to be made into farming tools.” I always wondered what my mother would have thought if she had lived.
Papa lied to me about my mother’s death. Both he and NaiNai told me that Mother died giving birth. But I had already learned otherwise from neighbors’ gossip. Papa had “rented” his wife to the town’s “Bare-sticks” in order to pay off his debts. One of the bachelors got Mother pregnant. I was four years old when it happened. To rid her of the “bastard seed,” Papa bought magic root powder from an herbalist. Papa mixed the powder with tea and Mother drank it. Mother died along with the seed. It broke Papa’s heart, because he had intended to kill the fetus, not his wife. He had no money to buy another wife. Papa was angry at the herbalist, but there was nothing he could do—he had been warned about the poison.
NaiNai feared that she would be punished by the gods for Mother’s death. She believed that in her next life she would be a diseased bird and her son a limbless dog. NaiNai burned incense and begged the gods to reduce her sentence. When she ran out of money for incense, she stole. She took me to markets, temples, and graveyards. We would not act until darkness fell. NaiNai moved like an animal on all fours. She was in and out of bamboo groves and brick hallways, behind the hills and around ponds. Under the bright moonlight, NaiNai’s long neck stretched. Her head seemed to become smaller. Her cheekbones sharpened. Her slanting eyes glowed as she scanned the temples. NaiNai appeared, disappeared, and reappeared like a ghost. But one night she stopped. In fact, she collapsed. I was aware that she had been ill. Tufts of hair had been falling from her head. There was a rotten smell to her breath. “Go and look for your father,” she ordered. “Tell him that my end is near.”
Papa was a handsome man in his thirties. He had what a fortuneteller would describe as “the look of an ancient king” or “the matching energy of sky and earth,” meaning he had a square forehead and a broad chin. He had a pair of sheep eyes, a garlic-shaped nose that sat on his face like a gentle hill, and a mouth that was always ready to smile. His hair was thick and silky black. Every morning, he combed and braided it with water to make his queue smooth and shining. He walked with his back straight and head up. Speaking Mandarin with an Imperial accent, Papa wore his voice like a costume. But when Papa lost his temper, his voice would slip. People were shocked when Mr. Yee suddenly took up a strange voice. Ignoring NaiNai’s opinion that his ambitions would never be realized, Papa dreamed that one day he would work for the governor as an adviser. Papa attended teahouses where he showed off his talent in classic Chinese poems and verse. “I must keep my mind sharp and literary skills tuned,” he often said to me. One would never guess from the way he presented himself that Papa was a seasonal coolie.
We lived in Chin-kiang, a small town far away from the capital, Peking, on the south side of the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province. Originally, our family was from Anhui province, a harsh region where survival depended on an endless round of crushing physical labor. For generations my family worked the region’s thin and unfertile soil and struggled with famine, flood, locusts, bandits, and debt seekers. NaiNai bragged that it was she who brought “luck” to the Yee family. She was purchased by my grandfather when he was forty years old. No one was allowed to mention that the purchase took place in a local sing-song house. When NaiNai was in her prime, she had a slender figure, a swanlike neck, and a pair of fox eyes with both ends tilted up. She painted her face every day and modeled her hairstyle after the Imperial empress. It was said that men’s blood would boil when NaiNai smiled.
By the time the family crossed the Yangtze River and migrated to the south, NaiNai had given the Yee family three sons. Papa was the eldest and the only one sent to school. Grandfather expected a return from his investment. Papa was expected to become an accountant so that the family could fight the government’s tax collectors. But things didn’t turn out right—Grandfather lost his son to the education.
Papa believed that he was too good to work as a coolie. At sixteen, he developed the expensive habits and fantasies of the rich. He read books on China’s political reform and chewed tea leaves to sweeten his peasant garlic breath. An ideal life, he told others, would be to “compose poems under blossoming plum trees,” far away from the “greedy material world.” Instead of returning home, Papa traveled the country, making his parents pay the bills. One day he received a message from his mother. The message informed him that his father and brothers were gravely ill and near death from an infectious disease that had swept through his hometown.
Papa rushed home, but the funeral was already over. Soon enough, his house was possessed by the debt seekers. NaiNai and Papa fell into poverty and became coolies. Although NaiNai vowed to regain their former prosperity, she was no longer healthy. By the time I was born, NaiNai suffered from an incurable intestinal disease.
Papa struggled to keep his “intellectual dignity.” He continued to write poems. He even composed a piece titled “The Sweet Scent of Books” for my mother’s funeral. Invoking a newfound spirituality, he insisted that his words would make better gifts than jewelry and diamonds to accompany his wife in her next life. Although Papa was no different from a beggar in terms of possessions, he made sure that he was lice-free. He kept his appearance by trimm
ing his beard and never missed a chance to mention his “honorable past.”
Papa’s honorable past didn’t mean anything to me. For the first years of my young life, food was the only thing on my mind. I would wake hungry every morning and go to sleep hungry every night. Sometimes the clawing in my stomach would keep me from sleeping. Having to constantly scavenge for scraps, I existed in a delirium. Unexpected luck or a good harvest might bring food for a while, but the hunger would always return.
By the time I was seven, in 1897, things had only gotten worse. Although NaiNai’s health had continued to deteriorate, she was determined to do something to better our lot. Picking up her old profession, she began to receive men in the back of our bungalow. When I was given a fistful of roasted soybeans, I understood that it was time to disappear. I ran through the rice paddies and the cotton fields into the hills and hid in the bamboo groves. I cried because I couldn’t bear the thought of losing NaiNai the same way I had lost Mother.
Around this time, Papa and I worked as seasonal farmhands. He planted rice, wheat, and cotton and carried manure. My job was to plant soybeans along the edges of the fields. Each day, Papa and I woke before dawn to go to work. As a child, I was paid less than an adult, but I was glad to be earning money. I had to compete with other children, especially boys. I always proved that I was faster than the boys when it came to planting soybeans. I used a chopstick to poke a hole and threw a soybean into each one. I kicked dirt into the hole and sealed it with my big toe.
The coolie market where we got our jobs closed after the planting season was over. Papa and I couldn’t find any work. Papa spent his days walking the streets in search of a job. No one hired him, although he was received politely. I followed Papa throughout the town. When I found him wandering into the surrounding hills, I started doubting his seriousness about finding a job.
“What a glorious view!” Papa marveled as he beheld the countryside spreading below his feet. “Willow, come and admire the beauty of nature!”
I looked. The wide Yangtze flowed freely and leaped aside into small canals and streams that fed the southern land.
“Beyond the valleys are hidden old temples that have stood for hundreds of years.” Papa’s voice rose again. “We live in the best place under the sun!”
I shook my head and told him that the demon in my stomach had eaten away my good sense.
Papa shook his head. “What did I teach you?”
I rolled back my eyes and recited, “Virtue will sustain and prevail.”
Virtue finally failed to sustain Papa. The demons in his stomach took over—he was caught stealing. Neighbors no longer wanted to be associated with him. The pity was that Papa never actually succeeded as a thief. He was too clumsy. More than once I witnessed him being beaten by the folks he stole from. He was thrown into the open sewage. He told his friends that he had “tripped over a tree stump.” Laughing, they asked him, “Was it the same stump you tripped over the last time?” One day Papa came home holding his arm, which had been knocked out of its socket. “I deserved it,” he said, cursing himself. “I shouldn’t have stolen from an infant’s mouth.”
By the time I was eight years old I was already a seasoned thief. I began by stealing incense for NaiNai. Although Papa criticized me, he knew that the family would starve if I stopped. Papa would sell the goods I stole.
I snatched small items at first, such as vegetables, fruit, birds, and puppies. Then I went for farming tools. After selling what I stole, Papa would rush to a local bar for rice wine. He took his sips slowly, closing his eyes as if concentrating on the taste. When his cheeks began to redden, he would recite his favorite poem. Although his friends had long since left him, he imagined his audience.
The Grand Yangtze River runs toward the ocean,
Never to return, so went the dynasty’s glorious days.
When would the time come again for heroes?
Though music continues playing, swiftly and triumphantly,
Reform miscarried, reformers beheaded,
Foreign troops plagued the country
His Majesty locked in the island of Yintai.
Where have been the gods’ responses?
Weep the learned man,
Brokenhearted and in despair . . .
One day a man clapped. He was sitting in a corner. He stood up to congratulate Papa. He was tall, a giant in the eyes of the Chinese. He was the brown-haired and blue-eyed foreigner, an American missionary. He was by himself with a thick book and a cup of tea in front of him.
He smiled at Papa and praised him for his fine poem.
Absalom Sydenstricker was his name. The locals called him the “plow-nosed and demon-eyed crazy foreigner.” He had been a fixture in town for as long as I could remember. Not only was he ceiling tall, he also had hair growing on his forearms and the backs of his hands like weeds. All year long Absalom wore a gray Chinese gown. A queue went down his back, which everyone knew was fake. His costume made him look ridiculous, but he didn’t seem to care. Absalom spent his time chasing people on the street. He tried to stop them and talk to them. He wanted to make us believe in his God. As children, we were taught to avoid him. We were not allowed to say things that would hurt his feelings, such as “Go away.”
Papa was familiar with Absalom Sydenstricker since he, too, spent time wandering the streets. Papa concluded that Absalom was laying up credit for himself so that his God would offer him a ticket to heaven when he died.
“Or else why leave his own home to wander among strangers?” Papa questioned.
Papa suspected that Absalom was a criminal in his own land. Out of curiosity that day, Papa listened to what the foreigner had to say. Afterward, he invited Absalom home for “further discussion.”
Thrilled, Absalom came. He didn’t mind our dirty hut. He sat down and opened his book. “Would you like a story from the Bible?” he offered.
Papa was not interested in stories. He wanted to know what kind of god Jesus was. “Based on the way he was tortured, stabbed to death, nailed and tied to posts, he must be a royal criminal. In China such elaborate public torture would be given only to criminals of high status, like the former Imperial prime minister Su Shun.”
Excitement filled Absalom’s voice. He began to explain. But his Chinese was difficult to understand.
Papa lost his patience. When Absalom paused, Papa interrupted. “How can Jesus protect others when he couldn’t even protect himself?”
Absalom waved his hands, pointed his fingers up and down, and then read from the Bible.
Papa decided that it was time to help the foreigner. “Chinese gods make better sense,” he said. “They are more worshipper-friendly . . .”
“No, no, no.” Absalom shook his head like a merchant’s drummer. “You are not understanding me . . .”
“Listen, foreigner, my suggestions might help you. Put clothes on Jesus and give him a weapon. Look at our god of war, Guan-gong. He wears a general’s robe made of heavy metal, and he carries a powerful sword.”
“You are a clever man,” Absalom told Papa, “but your biggest mistake is that you are knowledgeable of all gods but the true God.”
I observed that Absalom’s face was a big opium bed with a high nose sitting like a table in the middle. His eyebrows were two bird’s nests and under them were clear blue eyes. After his talk with Papa he went back into the streets. I followed him.
“God is your best fortune!” Absalom sang to the people who paused in front of him. No one paid attention. People tied their shoelaces, wiped snot off their children’s faces, and moved on. Absalom stuck his long arms out like two brooms in the air. When he saw Papa again, he smiled. Papa smiled back. It took Papa quite a while to figure out what Absalom was trying to say.
“We have shed blood unlawfully,” Absalom said, waving the Bible in Papa’s face. “It may be innocently, but the stain remains upon us. Mankind can only remove it by prayers and good deeds.”
I discovered where Absalom lived. His
house was a bungalow located in the lower part of town. His neighbors were coolies and peasants. I wondered what had made Absalom choose the place. Although Chin-kiang was the smallest town in Jiangsu province, it had been an important port since ancient times. From the water’s edge, stone-paved streets led to shops and then the center of the town, where the British Embassy was located. The embassy occupied the highest point, with a broad view of the Yangtze River.
Although he was not the first American missionary to come to China, Absalom claimed he was the first to arrive in Chin-kiang during the late nineteenth century. According to old folks, soon after Absalom arrived, he purchased a piece of land behind the graveyard, where he built a church. His intention was to avoid “disturbing the living,” but to the Chinese, disturbing the dead was the worst crime one could commit. The church’s tall shadow stretched out over the graveyard. The locals protested. Absalom had to abandon the church. He moved down the hill and rented a shop as his new church. It was a room with a low ceiling, crooked beams, falling studs, and broken windows.
Most of the people thought Absalom a harmless fool. Children loved to follow him around. His feet were the main attraction, because they were huge. When Absalom asked the local shoemaker for a pair of Chinese shoes, it became news. People visited the shop just to see how much material it would take and if the shoemaker would double the charge.